Microsoft, Intel, Lexmark and Ricoh have signed up to a new Web services spec to make it easier to connect devices such as printers, digital cameras and digital music players over a network.

Officially launched at Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, Devices Profile for Web services will describe how devices should use Web services protocols, and builds on several other recent Web services specs announced recently, including WS-Discovery and WS-Security. The spec will soon be put forward to the Universal Play and Play (UPnP) Forum for consideration.

The plan to use Web services to connect peripherals to computers is a change from the current use of Web services where business software is connected across corporate networks or the Internet. Microsoft has produced a Network Connected Device Driver Development Kit (DDK) for the technology and Canon and HP are expected to showcase printers supporting the Web services protocols.

Devices that use the new technology will automatically be discovered when connected to a home or company network and can subsequently be installed as if connected directly to a PC, Microsoft said in a statement.

Tying devices together today is too complicated, especially if those devices are networked, said Microsoft VP Jim Allchin in a keynote presentation. "If you take a device that is on a local connection and plug it in, we've made a lot of progress with plug and play, but, if you actually have a device across the Net, that is super hard. And it's a different experience to the end user," he said.

According to Allchin, the existing UPnP 1.x standard used today is not enterprise ready. As such, the Devices Profile will be proposed to the UPnP Forum as the basis for the UPnP 2.0 Device Architecture.

Enabling devices to connect using Web services will be beneficial for both home and business users, according to the technology's backers. For example, when connecting a large printer in an enterprise today, an IT department has to manually set up the print server so it knows the features of the printer, such as a document feeder and sorting capabilities.

Lexmark plans to create devices profiles for its networked products, said Don Wright, director of alliances and standards at Lexmark. "We will be able to learn in a standard way that the device is present, who is authorized to use it and what its capabilities are," he said. "All of that functionality will be automated and relieve the IT manager from spending time driving around his enterprise configuring every new device that gets plugged into the network."

Assuming all goes well with the process of getting approval by the UPnP Forum, the first devices using the technology could be out in the 2006 or 2007 timeframe, said Stephen Whalley, technology enabling manager at Intel.